Parashat Mishpatim Torah Reading: Exodus 21:1-24:18
I am grateful to my colleague, Rabbi Brad Artson, for the wisdom and insight he brings to this week's parashah/Torah reading, Mishpatim. After acknowledging a phenomenon that many have noted in today's society--that personal autonomy has become a much greater driving force than collective values and behavorial norms--Rabbi Artson goes on to note:
"Yet we also pay a price for our autonomy. All this freedom and lack of direction or discipline also produces tremendous loneliness, drifting, and superficiality." (The Everyday Torah/Mishpatim)
It is no small wonder, then, that the myriad of rules that seem to define traditional Judaism (the 613 mitzvot/commandments) strike many people as antiquated and irrelevant.
But Rabbi Artson frames our mitzvot wisely and with perception:
"Judaism celebrates the love between God and the Jewish people, viewing the myriad laws and mitzvot as confirmation of that abiding passion and devotion. Parents who don't tell their children what to eat, what to wear, and when to sleep don't really love their children, regardless of how often they speak of their affection. True love, the kind that nurtures independence of soul and depth of personality requires attention to detail." (The Everyday Torah/Mishpatim)
The mitzvot/commandments of parashat Mishpatim represent that attention to detail. This week's reading includes mitzvot regarding justice for widows and orphans, laws concerning an animal that does bodily harm to a person, the calendar of festivals, prohibitions on sorcery and idolatry, standards of honesty in courts and much more. An amazing variety that expresses the holistic scope of our covenant/brit with God and the potential to infuse everything we do with "kedushah" with holiness.
There is a blessing we recite twice a day just before we declare: Sh'ma yisrael (Hear, Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One): That blessing acknowledges the Torah as a gift from God and expresses our desire to reciprocate through the study of Torah and the observance of the mitzvot. The blessing is referred to as "birkat ahavah", "the blessing of love."
Just as our children flourish when we guide their development with wise and loving rules--things they must do, things they musn't do--so will we, as adults, flourish when we pay attention to the details of our relationship with God. We all know, we adults, that we are still "works in progress." We all know, we adults, that we don't have all the answers and that we are deeply challenged all the time by the decisions and choices that lay before us. We are never left to our own resources by the loving God of Israel; no matter what issues faces us, great or small, the mitzvot/commandments of our tradition are there for us like a safety net, like the loving arms of a parent, to help us be the best we can be.
Parashat Yitro Torah Reading: Exodus 18:1-20:23
During this week's Torah reading, an extraordinary thing is going to happen. We are going to stand as a community to receive Torah again as our Torah reader, Harold Labush, reads for us the biblical account of the revelation at Mount Sinai.
Why are we going to stand?
Standing is, of course, one accessible way of demonstrating the importance of the text. Although all of the Torah is precious to us, and there is an infinite amount we can learn from Torah, the moment of revelation at Sinai is unique. This revelation is the Torah's first collective revelation (up to this moment, God has communicated with individuals up to now (Abraham, Isaac, Rebekkah, Moses . . .). Now, at Sinai, the entire people Israel are gathered together and experience this moment of revelation as a collective. Indeed, the homiletic rabbinic genre of Midrash teaches us that every Jewish soul of every generation . . . each of us . . . was present at Sinai, not just the generation alive at that time.
Standing is also an active rather than a passive position. For most of the year, we sit comfortably in our seats while Harold reads the words of the Torah to us. We follow along in the Hebrew, we read the accompanying English, we browse the commentaries or day dream. But when we arrive at this unique moment of divine communication we do not sit back and contemplate the text from a distance, we enter into the moment by standing as a community, a covenanted community.
Many of you may have already heard my favorite Peanuts cartoon:
Charlie Brown, Sally and Snoopy are sitting on a big sofa.
Charlie has a huge book on his lap and he is reading to Sally. He is reading the Genesis story of the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah and how Lot and his wife are escaping the city. Against God's instructions, Lot's wife turns back and looks at the destruction behind her and she is turned into a pillar of salt.
Sally is listening to this story wide-eyed and completely absorbed in the plot. She is soaking in every word.
Snoopy, at the far end of the sofa, looks back at Charlie and says: "But, what happened to their dog!"
Each of these three is a role model:
Charlie is the role model of teacher of Torah (close to my heart, of course). He is passing on the tradition.
Sally is the role model of student. Engaged totally in the tradition being transmitted to her.
But Snoopy is my hero. Because Snoopy doesn't just read the story, or listen to the story, he inserts himself into the story.
That is what we do when we stand for tomorrow morning's account of the revelation at Sinai . . . we emulate Snoopy and see ourselves reflected in the words of Torah.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.